IN THE CROSSFIRE
Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary
CAUGHT IN A CROSSFIRE
The Japanese army surrendered on August 15, 1945. The victorious Allies put the defeated forces in charge of maintaining order in Indochina until the Allied occupation army arrived. Nevertheless the troops of the Vietminh entered Hanoi on August 18.
Saigon was reported to be in turmoil. Unable to stay away, I quit my job in Can Tho and set out for Saigon with Nguyen Van Linh. We reached a checkpoint outside the city at Tan An and there, standing right in front of me, was Nguyen Van Tao, the Stalinist leader I had known in prison. He, too, was naturally on his way to Saigon. He clapped me on the shoulder: Listen, don’t do anything stupid! Think before you act! His protective attitude was like that of an older brother toward a wayward boy. He knew very well that I belonged to the underground Trotskyist group.
I went to Tan Lo, the hamlet 15 kilometers north of Saigon where my mother was living. Her house soon became the main contact point for the League. Many of its members showed up there — Lu Sanh Hanh, Nguyen Van Nam, Nguyen Van Linh — as well as new comrades such as Liu Khanh Thinh, who worked for the Chinese at Cholon, and Le Ngoc, who was on the action committee set up by four hundred workers in the streetcar workshop at Go Vap. Under the Japanese occupation this combative committee had managed to win a pay raise and recognition of their elected delegates. Our League had a very active nucleus there.
* * *
One day the poet and printer Tran Dinh Minh arrived from Hanoi with news from the North that both excited and alarmed us. He told us that in 1944 and 1945 he had been putting out a samizdat newspaper, Co Do (Red Flag), and that the writer Nguyen Te My had published a Manifesto criticizing the Stalinist Vietminh for its contacts with the imperialist Allies, denouncing it for sowing the illusion that it was possible to obtain national liberation by making a deal with the imperialist French and the Allies. In the Dan Phuong area (Ha Dong), Luong Duc Thiep and his friends had circulated a news-sheet called Chien Dau (Combat), which urged workers and peasants to rise up against all imperialists without exception, Allied as well as Japanese. The students Nguyen Ton Hoan, Phan Thanh Hoa and Tuan had gone to talk to the miners about the problems of the struggle, striving to counter the jingoistic propaganda of the Vietminh and to criticize the strategy based solely on a demand for national independence. Because in the final analysis, what sort of liberation would it be if the workers and peasants were still slaving away in the mines or on the plantations for private profiteers?
A burst of wild hope filled us when we learned that the 30,000 miners of the Hongai-Campha Coal Mines had taken their fate into their own hands and elected workers councils to manage the coal production themselves. The miners were now in control of the public services in the area, the railways and the telegraph system. They were applying the principle of equal pay for all types of work, whether manual or intellectual. They had even begun a literacy campaign, setting up courses in which those who were literate taught their fellow workers how to read. In this working-class Commune, life was organized with no bosses and no cops.
But we were already afraid this could not last. Everything that Tran Dinh Minh reported showed us that not only was social revolution not on the agenda for the Stalinist Vietminh, who were now in power in the North, but also that they were prepared to repress it at any cost in order to retain total political power. They had not even waited to be formally installed in the government before starting to physically eliminate those they called Trotskyist traitors to the Fatherland. Tran Dinh Minh told us about a young and very active Trotskyist, Nguyen Huu Dung, who had been pursued in a sampan through the flooded ricefields and assassinated by a young Vietminh member; and about the death under torture of his friend Tran Tien Chinh, a teacher and an Oppositionist, in a Vietminh jail at Bac Kan. What, then, would be the fate of the miners’ Commune at Hongai-Campha? Torn between hope and fear, for a long time we had no way of finding out what was happening. But thanks to those miners, we had a better understanding of what we were fighting for.
* * *
In the South the parties and political groups that had developed during the Japanese occupation had formed a working alliance to confront the imminent return of the French. The National Party for the Independence of Vietnam and the other nationalist groupings (the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, the JAG, the State Employees Federation, the Intellectuals’ Group, and the Buddhist Anchorites Group) all came together in a National United Front and called for a demonstration on August 21, 1945, under the slogans: Down with French imperialism! and Independence for Vietnam!”
We took part in the demonstration under our own banners: Arm the people! Form people’s committees! Land to the peasants! Workers’ control of the factories! What a joy it was to be once again with my old comrades, marching shoulder to shoulder in passionate and fraternal solidarity, immersed in the crowds of coolies, workers and peasants who had joined us! But I felt a knot in my heart at the absence, suddenly cruelly evident, of those who had died in the torment of the past few years: Trinh Van Lau, Vo Van Don, Van Van Ky . . .
That same evening cars drove through the streets of Saigon blaring out from loudspeakers: Everyone behind the Vietminh! We read in their leaflet: The Vietminh has collaborated closely with the Allies in the fight against the French and the Japanese. We will thus be in a good position to negotiate [for independence]. Bluster and boasts from the Stalinist Tran Van Giau, worming his way into power.
Sensing the way the wind was blowing, Dr. Pham Ngoc Thach, the leader of the JAG, left the National United Front to join the Stalinist party, putting at its service the formidable instrument of control and power that the JAG had become. The next day the JAG’s banners were proclaiming: All power to the Vietminh!
The State Employees Federation formed a bloc with the JAG. The Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects also aligned themselves with the Vietminh. Everything was set for the Stalinists to take power.
The evening after the march, I met Kinh An Do, my workmate at Vinh Long.
We’re ready to take power, he confided to me. The proclamation’s already printed.”
So he was in on Tran Van Giau’s coup plans. Walking through the big city park, I came across JAG groups carrying sharpened bamboo poles, drilling in military formation.
On the evening of August 24, 1945, a massive square column draped with a red muslin banner appeared in front of the City Hall. In huge letters, it proclaimed: Nam Bo Provisional Executive Committee: President and Minister of Military Affairs, Tran Van Giau; Foreign Minister, Pham Ngoc Thach; Minister of the Interior, Nguyen Van Tao; Minister of State Security, Duong Bach Mai. Thus was announced the self-appointed de facto government of our new masters. It would be a purely Stalinist regime, though for appearance’s sake they had included a few token non-Party figures. They announced that the following day, August 25, there would be a demonstration that would function as a plebiscite. We decided to attend it and make our dissenting voice heard.
In the dawn hours of August 25, the whole native population of Saigon began to arrive for the demonstration. People from the straw huts outside the city, the lower classes from the inner suburbs of Gia Dinh, Go Vap, Thi Nghe and Khanh Hoi, all converged on the city center, which was already crowded with peasants from rebellious areas such as Ba Diem, Hoc Mon, Duc Hoa and Cho Dem. They poured onto Boulevard Norodom, where an impressive platform had been artfully erected behind the cathedral. No one had ever seen such an enormous crowd. There was a surge of hopes and an intoxicating feeling of unanimity. Everyone wanted to experience the end of the colonial regime, and to do so they were prepared to throw themselves into combat for a future that was still uncertain.
The League, with its radical slogans, Land to the peasants! Factories to the workers! aroused the enthusiasm of this exploited population, who had come with the hope to be done with all masters, whether white or yellow. To the Stalinists who shouted All power to the Vietminh! we replied: All power to the people’s committees! And we sang the Internationale in response to the JAGs, who were singing On the March, a song about the eternal heroism of the Vietnamese. In fact, the Stalinists went so far as to declare: The Communists, as the militant vanguard of our people, are prepared to put the interests of the Fatherland before class interests.”
At the press conference held the next day by Tran Van Giau in the City Hall, Tran Van Thach, a member of the La Lutte group, posed the question: Who elected this ‘Nam Bo Provisional Executive Committee’?”
Tran Van Giau, beside himself with rage, replied, We have provisionally taken over the government at this stage; later we will transfer it to you.”
Then, fingering his revolver, As for my political reply . . . I will give that to you elsewhere.”
And so he did: two months later, in October 1945, Tran Van Thach was shot dead by Tran Van Giau’s thugs.
The Allied Commission was due to arrive in Saigon at any moment in order to disarm the Japanese troops and send them home. Tran Van Giau asked the people to cooperate with the government in welcoming the Allied Commission with solemnity. Every building, public or private, should display the national flag of Vietnam, surrounded by the flags of the British, the Americans, the Russians and the Chinese. On September 2, 1945, Tran Van Giau organized an armed demonstration and harangued the crowd from his podium. Not content with celebrating independence, he already denounced a certain number of people who are traitors to the Fatherland. . . . We must punish the gangs who are stirring up trouble in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, thereby giving our enemies the opportunity to invade us. These threats were obviously aimed at us, as well as being a warning to other potential rebels. We understood that the elimination of revolutionary opponents, already well advanced in the North, was now also threatened in the South.
Nevertheless, we were astonished to see that the armed procession included a group of men who were naked to the waist and covered in tattoos, carrying their own banner with the bizarre appellation: Assassination Assault Committee. They were Binh Xuyen river pirates, hired by Tran Van Giau and Duong Bach Mai as policemen and bodyguards. They took their name from a poor, almost uninhabited area south of Cholon that was reputed to be a nest of outlaws. We soon learned that the main portion of their band, which was based near the Y-shaped bridge over the river between Saigon and Cholon, was in control of the Chinese Arroyo, the bypass canal, the southern part of Saigon and almost all of the developed portion of Cholon. In addition to these pirates, Tran Van Giau’s People’s Army was composed mostly of brigades of riot police, militiamen and gendarmes, the French repressive force which had been maintained by the Japanese and which now switched over to the service of the new potentates.
The JAGs paraded around with banners displaying the Tran Van Giau government’s pet slogan in English, Russian and Chinese: Welcome to our allies! The Cao Dai sect marched behind their own leaders, as did the powerful nationalist army known as the Third Division” and the Hoa Hao, armed adherents of the Mad Monk, who had a messianic belief in the imminent return of the Buddha King. Everywhere you could see banners in French or in Annamite: DOWN WITH FRENCH IMPERIALISM! BETTER DEATH THAN SLAVERY! TOTAL INDEPENDENCE FOR VIETNAM!
At about four o’clock, as the procession was passing the cathedral, shots rang out. The French are firing at us! the crowd shouted, and started running in all directions, panic-stricken.
Groups of armed men rushed toward the House of Missions. A kindly chaplain named Tricoire, whom I had known in prison, was stabbed and fell on the courtyard. There were more scattered shots coming from various directions, including Boulevard Bonard and the Central Marketplace. At nightfall a torrential rain brought calm. A rumor spread that five French people had been killed.
The next day, Tran Van Giau decreed that no weapons were to be carried in the streets, except of course by his own cops and supporters. Fortunately, no one paid any attention to this order.
We put out a leaflet in the name of the League of Internationalist Communists and distributed it in the Central Marketplace, calling on the population to arm themselves, to organize themselves in people’s committees and to set up people’s militias. It should be noted here that in a book published in Saigon in 1994 called Histoire de la Résistance, Saigon-Cholon-Giadinh 1945-1975, the servile authors slanderously attributed to the League the racist slogan: Exterminate the whites! Wretched hired penpushers!
Everyone was looking for ways to get weapons. In Saigon, large numbers of people’s committees (reminiscent of the 1936 action committees) arose spontaneously as organizations of local administration. In August the workers in the Phu Nhuan district had already elected such a committee, which had proclaimed itself the only legal power in the district. The Ban Co district followed suit the next day. Embryonic people’s councils were springing up everywhere: the dynamism appeared irresistible. The League took part in the coordination of this movement. We opened premises at 9 Rue Duclos in the Tan Dinh district where the elected delegates could meet, protected by armed workers. These delegates issued a declaration in which they affirmed their independence from the political parties and resolutely condemned any attempt to restrict the autonomy of the decisions taken by workers and peasants.
I continued living clandestinely, spending my time going to and from the village in order to hide weapons there that we had managed to pick up, mostly on the black market.
One day, I ran into Kinh An Do in the city. He told me that in the provinces of My Tho, Tra Vinh, Sadec, Long Xuyen and Chau Doc the peasants had spontaneously taken possession of the land. The land to those who work it had been a Communist Party slogan in 1930; now some Stalinist militants very nearly got themselves lynched for trying to restrain those who were carrying it out. A communiqué appeared in the press from the Commissar of the Interior — who was none other than my old acquaintance Nguyen Van Tao. It declared: Those who are encouraging the peasants to take over landed property will be punished without mercy. The communist revolution, which will resolve the agrarian problem, has not yet taken place. Our government is a democratic and bourgeois government, even though the Communists are in power. Now that my old prisonmate Nguyen Van Tao had become the master of the crushing machine, he had the power of life and death over us all. When we had met at Tan An, his advice to take care had been tinged with genuine concern. Now it sounded like a serious warning.
* * *
The Allied Commission arrived on September 6, 1945, under the command of British General Gracey. Despite his ceremonious reception by the Vietminh, Gracey immediately ejected the latter’s de facto government from the Cochinchina Governor’s Palace and installed himself there. Tran Van Giau and his team had to move to the City Hall. Under an order from Gracey, the Japanese commander Terauchi ordered Tran Van Giau to dissolve all armed groups and to totally prohibit any possession of arms.
Tran Van Giau soon found his scapegoat. He lashed out against our League: An irresponsible group has called on the population to demonstrate at the Saigon marketplace with the demand of ‘arming the people,’ thereby giving foreigners a pretext to attack our sovereignty. This is an abuse of the democratic liberties that we, the Executive Committee, have promulgated.”
A hate campaign was unleashed against us. The Stalinists, in their paper Dan Chung, called the Trotskyists Viet gian (traitors to the Fatherland). On September 7, the La Lutte group put up posters announcing that Ta Thu Thau had been arrested in Quang Ngai in front of his group’s meeting place. When he was challenged about this, Tran Van Giau issued a terse press statement that said, The Nam Bo Executive Committee has the right to judge Ta Thu Thau.”
In fact, Tran Van Giau continued to have various groups of armed men at his disposal, which constituted a sort of Stalinist secret police, and he also controlled the police stations and the prison, which were run by his crony Duong Bach Mai. On September 14, 1945, Duong Bach Mai sent his cops to surround the meeting hall of the Tan Dinh people’s committees, in which the League had been very active, in order to arrest some thirty delegates, including our comrades Lu Sanh Hanh and Nguyen Van Chuyen, and to seize weapons. The prisoners were locked up in the Central Prison — a place that was all too familiar to nearly all of them from the days of the French.
These tumultuous events came to a head with the arrival of a battalion of Gurkhas* commanded by English officers, charged with disarming the Japanese soldiers and maintaining order in the southern half of Vietnam.
On September 17, the de facto Vietminh government called a general strike. On September 20, Gracey banned the entire Annamite press and ordered all Vietminh proclamations to be torn down from the city’s walls. The Vietminh then urged the population to disperse into the countryside and to remain calm, as the de facto government hopes to obtain negotiations. On September 21, Gracey declared martial law. The following day, the British took control of the Central Prison and delivered to the French Sûreté our League comrades who had been arrested by the Stalinists.
Gracey also freed and rearmed the French soldiers held by the Japanese as prisoners of war, who then unleashed a reign of terror in the city against the Annamites. At about 4:00 a.m. on Sunday, September 23, these French soldiers stormed the City Hall, which Tran Van Giau and his men had already abandoned, and shot the Annamite sentries. They tightly bound together about fifty other Annamites and retained them as prisoners.
Filled with terror and rage, the people of the city quickly built barricades with chopped-down trees, overturned vehicles and piled-up furniture in order to bar the passage of patrols and troops. It was a desperate resistance. You could hear the rattle of machine-gun fire until six the next morning. Eventually the city center fell to the French, supported by the Gurkhas. French soldiers and sailors went from door to door in the city center and on the waterfront, shooting out the houses’ locks and taking the inhabitants away, incarcerating them in police stations and any other available public buildings. At the Central Post Office more than a hundred men, women and young people under guard were made to squat on the ground with their arms shackled tightly above their heads.
But the outskirts of the city and the suburbs, where most of the poor lived, belonged to the insurgents. Saigon was surrounded. In the south, the Binh Xuyen pirates controlled the Chinese Arroyo all the way to Cholon; in the northwest, the Cao Dai controlled the Tay Ninh road and the Tan Son Nhut airport. The Vietminh militias operated in the district immediately to the north of the city and on the banks of the Arroyo de l’Avalanche as far as the Gia Dinh road.
Simultaneously under fire from two sides — the Anglo-French and
the Stalinists — Nguyen Van Linh and I hid out at Nguyen Van Nam’s house in Cau
Kho, on the edge of town. Early one morning we were awakened by the din of the
JAGs assembling nearby. Since Nam knew all the insurgents from his street, we
were able to leave without any problem. We learned that in the Da Kao
neighborhood on September 23, the same day the French had attacked the city, the
Stalinists had assassinated Le Van Vung, the secretary of the Saigon-
Cholon district committee of La Lutte, while in Can Giuoc they had killed Nguyen Thi Loi, a labor unionist teacher from the same group. Since all our fighting units in the inner city had been smashed by Tran Van Giau’s secret police, Linh and I decided to leave the city in order to regroup. Nam found us a man who ran a boat on the Chinese Arroyo. We dashed on board under a hail of bullets.
Late that afternoon, a group of Binh Xuyen insurgents came up the Chinese Arroyo toward Boulevard de la Somme to join with another group that was advancing into Saigon along Rue de Verdun and heading for the Central Marketplace. From there and from Boulevard Bonard they had the city center, Rue Catinat and the Continental Hotel within their range.
We flattened ourselves on the bottom of the small boat. The boatman moored as far from the banks as possible, right in the middle of the river. We had to wait for the rising tide in order to leave. Half-submerged corpses were floating on the water. I witnessed a horrible manhunt on the river bank. Showers of whistling bullets landed like storm-driven rain around the boat. Night fell. On the left bank flames leaped into the sky: the central power station at Cho Quan was ablaze, plunging the whole town into darkness. Insurgents also dynamited the waterworks.
The next day we reached the Kinh Te Canal, which connects with the Saigon River and which was still not under the control of the colonial enemy. We were stopped by some Binh Xuyen who were patrolling the canal, but Linh showed them an old safe-conduct pass and managed to convince them to let us go.
Just as we emerged from the canal onto the river, a convoy of barges passed us, going upstream toward Saigon. The Japanese soldiers guarding them saw our boat drifting toward them in apparent distress and threw us a rope. They towed us out into the middle of the river and that was how we managed to pass through the port Customs. We left the convoy as night fell, tying up at the Binh Loi bridge. Saigon burned red in the distance. Our boatman dropped us off near Thu Duc, generously offering us a pot of stewed beans at the expense of the Chinese client he was supposed to be delivering them to. Nguyen Van Linh and I reached my mother’s house in the middle of the night.
In the hamlet we organized a self-defense group. Linh taught the young people how to use a revolver. Although they all belonged to the JAG, they were quite friendly to us. However, my presence upset their leader, a retired elementary school teacher: he was afraid it would give him a bad name with the Stalinists who were in power in Thu Duc.
Close to the hamlet, there stood a building at the entrance to a rubber plantation. It had been abandoned by its French owner and in it we found a massive library that had been trashed, with books scattered all over the floor. I was delighted to find a copy of Georges Coulet’s Sociétés secrètes en terre d’Annam [Secret Societies in the Country of Annam], a collection of dictionaries of native languages, and some old sepia photographs showing dead insurgents who had been shot at the Chi Hoa fort after the failed attack on the Central Prison in February 1916. Our young comrades hung these photos on the walls of their meeting place, a hut they had erected on our land.
Our friend Nguyen Van Nam had also managed to get out of the encircled city. He described life there without water or electricity, plunged into a scene of slaughter and famine. The insurgents had attacked the police station of the port and set fire to the Rubber Manufacturing Company, the warehouses, the Central Marketplace and the French-owned rice warehouses.
One memorable evening Le Ngoc arrived with amazing news. Together with his comrades, the workers at the Go Vap streetcar workshops had decided to join the insurrection while remaining totally autonomous. In the internationalist spirit of the League, they had taken to heart the appeal to arm the people: They had broken with the Vietminh labor union organization, the General Confederation of Labor (renamed Workers for National Salvation by the Vietminh), and formed a Workers’ Militia, a name inspired by the Spanish Civil War. There were about sixty workers in this militia, organized into groups of eleven, each under the responsibility of a comrade chosen by the group. They had elected Tran Dinh Minh as military leader. As the French, backed by the Gurkhas, attempted unsuccessfully to break out of their encirclement in Saigon, the Workers’ Militia took up position at Cau Moi (Ba Chieu-Gia Dinh), the center of the front line of the eastern front, which extended to the right along the Hang Sanh road as far as the Thi Nghe bridge and to the left as far as the Binh Loi bridge.
On October 3, 1945, an order reached the front from the Vietminh Executive Committee, which was discussing a ceasefire with General Gracey. It called on all insurgents to fight only the French and to allow the British and Japanese to pass freely through the lines. This was an appalling and deadly folly: Detachments of Gurkhas and Japanese, who were being used as auxiliary troops by Gracey, immediately passed through the zones controlled by the insurgents without having a shot fired at them, and took possession of the most strategic positions. This enabled the French to break through the resistance at Ba Chieu, Binh Hoa and the Binh Loi bridge and on the Hang Sanh road toward Thi Nghe. At the Thi Nghe bridge around two hundred Trotskyist fighters from La Lutte were massacred.
After several days of fierce encounters with French tanks, the Workers’ Militia fighters retreated to Bau Tram. There, fighter planes dive-bombed the hamlet and strafed it with machine-gun fire. Twelve comrades were mowed down, including Chi Quy (the Militia’s nurse), Thien, Dong, Tran Quoc Kieu, Le Van Huong and Ho Van Duc. The survivors retreated further to the west, where the Third Division had camped. In order to avoid being at the mercy of the Vietminh, the Militia joined up with this latter army of partisans. Tran Van Thanh met his death alongside them in guerrilla fighting near the Cambodian frontier during a French counteroffensive on Loc Giang.
Le Ngoc left us to rejoin the Militia, carrying with him a statement of our political aims.
As for Nguyen Van Linh and me, at the alarming news that the Vietminh had arrested our comrade Nguyen Van Vang in Bien Hoa, where he had set up a people’s committee, we decided to set out on a search for him. When we reached Bien Hoa, Linh had a parley with the Vietminh while I waited for him, hidden on the river bank. Hours passed in increasing despair. He came back empty-handed. The jailers claimed to know nothing about our friend. We later learned that they had executed him.
Back at the hamlet, my cousin warned us that the Vietminh’s local police spies had been snooping around inquiring about us. It was time to move on. The next morning at dawn we left our guns with my Brothers Ten and Twelve and my nephews Bo and Xung, for the use of the hamlet’s self-defense group, and said a discreet goodbye to my mother. Nguyen Van Nam went back to Saigon, while Nguyen Van Linh and I chose to join the Workers’ Militia. On the way, Linh, who was sporting a blue Vietminh cap that he’d found somewhere, received several undeserved greetings. We found the Workers’ Militia in Loc Giang: what a joyous relief to join with our comrades in that atmosphere of combative solidarity!
Our life in the Militia became more organized. We got on well with the local peasants, explaining to them that we were fighting not only to drive out the French but also to get rid of the indigenous landlords, to end the forced labor in the ricefields, and to liberate the coolies.
One day, however, planes flew over Loc Giang, a sign that an attack was imminent. When the Third Division broke camp, the Militia decided to do likewise. We requisitioned local people with their ox-carts to help us move out.
During this exodus, we saw a guy with a rifle standing at the roadside next to a huge pile of bikes. Anyone who rode past on a bicycle had to leave it with him — an example of the power deriving from mere possession of a gun. Some Third Division men disarmed him and he fled.
After crossing vast, mournful stretches of marshland on foot or in ox-carts, we continued our odyssey by small boats on a canal, which went through a desolate immensity of alum-permeated swamps. This was the Plain of Reeds, where the first insurgents had set up their base when the French arrived in the nineteenth century. Even today tanks still find it impenetrable. But there are airplanes. . . .
We made our way across the Plain of Reeds via waterways — hundreds of men with their families, women and children in a stream of sampans and little boats. Eventually we made a stopover with some fishermen and peasants. They naturally were not very welcoming — there were too many of us and their lives were already so difficult. We had hardly finished digging ourselves into trenches when a French reconnaissance plane appeared in the sky. A few hours later, formations of French fighter planes dropped bombs and strafed the hamlet with machine-gun fire. The poor people who had suffered our presence wept at their burned-out thatched houses, damaged fish tanks and destroyed gardens. We had to quickly move on. We ended up further away in the vicinity of western Vai Co.
We needed a radio receiver for the Militia: I set out with a companion to try to unearth one. Some Vietminh guards hiding in a straw hut on the riverbank arrested us. They searched us, confiscated my revolver and my copy of Les Sociétés secrètes en terre d’Annam, and tied us together on a bench for the night. In the morning, they took us further inland to their leader. I claimed that we belonged to the Third Division, while of course omitting any mention of the Workers’ Militia.
Are you the ones who’ve been threatening to blow the brains out of the people on the river? Where did you get that book? What’s your religion?
Buddhism, I lied.
We were shoved into a small boat and taken along the left bank of the river till we reached a Guardian Spirit temple that had been turned into a prison. There were already around thirty detainees, including two women a fishwife and a girl whom the jailers called crazy and four Japanese soldiers. None of the prisoners seemed to have any idea why they were there.
A numbing, torpid sense of powerlessness overcame me at the sight of the supposedly crazy woman bound by arms and legs to a post in the muddy yard in the pouring rain, and struggling furiously. Trong wants to kill me! she was yelling. He wants to kill me! That damn teacher, seller of Chinese medicines . . . what did I do to turn him against me like this? What have I done?
I soon discovered that Nguyen Van Trong, the leader of the gang, had been put in charge of this region by Tran Van Giau.
General Leclerc’s tanks were making a dash for My Tho. Nguyen Van Trong realized that they would have to pass through Tan An, so he had moved further into the interior. In order to control everything that went up and down the river, he had hired former indigenous police agents from the French Sûreté. After the destruction of the French colonial regime by the Japanese, these cops had managed to escape having their throats cut during the Saigon uprising and had hidden out in the countryside. Some of them were now offering their services to the Vietminh chiefs.
The exodus from Tan An had left it completely deserted. Whole families had crammed themselves into junks and set off upstream. Any Catholics among these fugitives, or any who were thought to be Catholic, were arrested by Nguyen Van Trong’s henchmen, their new master having decided that all Catholics must be on the side of the French. To seal his authority, Nguyen Van Trong needed prisoners — victims over whom he held the power of life and death.
We heard rifle shots and thought it was a French attack. It turned out to be the execution of three Catholics by the Vietminh. From now on, I thought, I must be ready for anything. By some miracle I still had a bit of paper and a pencil stub. I scribbled down some information about my past struggle against the colonial regime and how I had continued the fight in the Go Vap streetcar Workers’ Militia. I kept this piece of paper carefully, as a trace, in case my life was to end there.
A night of horror. . . . Through the wooden partition we heard shouts: Admit that you informed for the French! Say it! The shouts were followed by the dull thud of a heel being driven into someone’s back, then a knee going into someone’s chest, then the sound of fists smashing a face. We heard a man howling in pain, mingled with the frightened cries of a child and the racking sobs of a woman. This went on all night. The only words they could wrench out of their victim were: This is injustice! Oh, heaven and earth!
The torturer was also our jailer. I mentally called him Buffalo-Head, and his mate Hawk-Beak, after the demons in the Buddhist hell. The next morning, Buffalo-Head interrogated two of the accusers — ex-cops from the French Sûreté who had been hired by Nguyen Van Trong for his police, and who in order to demonstrate their zeal to their new master had uncovered a nest of spies on the river! It turned out that their evidence was some bits of red, white and blue string — the colors of the French flag — that had been discovered under a heap of potatoes piled on the flimsy boat that carried this poor peasant family and their crops. Fresh prey for the torturer.
Two days later, we witnessed the execution of one of the cops who had instigated this farce. The Vietminh assembled all the prisoners and a crowd from the village. At dusk the condemned man, blindfolded and with his hands tied behind his back, was brought out into the open by the executioner, a hefty man stripped to the waist with a revolver in his hand. A hush fell on the spectators, and Hawk-Beak pronounced the death sentence. Some of the crowd applauded feebly. Turning to the peasants who had been tortured the previous night, Hawk-Beak made a great show of offering them a 100-piaster note as compensation. I looked away. The sound of a shot. The kneeling victim collapsed, twitching on the ground. His head was split open, and red blood was soaking into the trampled grass.
Three days later it was the turn of the other cop, at the same place and with the same audience. A cloth was tied round his eyes and the wretch was forced to his knees. Buffalo-Head knelt down too, facing him, about three meters away, and pointed his gun at the victim’s chest. Click! The man flinched but the gun didn’t go off. Someone took off his blue jacket: he was wearing a dirty white vest underneath. At the third shot he fell over. As he lay dying, Hawk-Beak leaned over him and shot him in the head. The body was still writhing weakly. Hawk-Beak fired again. The victim’s family wrapped the body in a piece of matting and buried him alongside the other one who had been shot, next to the river.
Some time later, there was an effort to primp up the place of executions as an elegant public square. A giant altar to the Fatherland was erected on the spot, and served as a platform for the ceremonial visit of the provincial Vietminh boss, Nguyen Van Trong. He arrived in a solemn procession, surrounded by fawning acolytes, and crudely mimicked the former French Administrators when they used to do the rounds of the villages. We could hear him bawling out his fervent but stilted sermon about how the children of the Mother Country were weeping for her in her illness. After the ceremony, when he passed near us, my companion dared to demand our freedom. Nguyen Van Trong shouted into his face: You should consider yourselves lucky you’re still alive!”
Then one day the jailers came for my friend and me. We tried to remain calm, but we were extremely worried. We spent two days and a night in a small boat going back up the Vai Co River. Then we were imprisoned in a little thatched church on the bank of the Mango River.
I was amazed and very moved to find there my friend Thu, who was a surveyor at My Tho. He told me that the Vietminh had imprisoned him because he had helped the peasants to divide up the land and ricefields that they had expropriated from the landlords. In so doing, the peasants had contravened the Stalinist party’s order against interfering with property rights. With Thu were other La Lutte supporters. Around forty people were held in this prison-church, including some former officials of the colonial regime.
One pleasant old fellow said to me, You were a prisoner of the French, and now under the Vietminh you are still in prison. How can that be? I recognized him. He had been the secretary of the French Administrator at Tra Vinh, the guy who had registered me when I was sentenced to restricted residence there four years before.
We had no contact at all with the only female prisoner, who was held in separate quarters. She was there, apparently, because of her connections with the French. Some nights the guard, who had himself done time at Poulo Condore, took the unfortunate woman to a hidden corner behind the church for interrogation.”
There were no clocks. We could tell the time only by the appearance of the morning star. Every morning at daylight the guard ran up the Vietminh flag in the middle of the yard. Some young people sang On the March (Len Dang), the jingoistic Vietminh anthem, while I and my La Lutte friends sang the Internationale. Then we hung around in the yard until our food ration arrived at midday. After that, more time in the open air, until being confined again at nightfall. Packed in rows like sardines, we slept on mats laid out on the hard-earth floor. During the day, whenever we heard the rumble of approaching aircraft, everyone ran for shelter into the church.
Thu and some of his companions kept themselves fit with nei kong, a kind of martial art, with the idea that we might have a chance to overpower the guards and escape. My body, enfeebled by tuberculosis, did not allow me to participate in these exercises, but did not prevent me from keeping an eye out for opportunities.
From time to time our guards let us wash ourselves in the Mango River. One sparkling sunny day I jumped into the clear current and was dog-paddling to keep myself afloat. A string of boats packed with armed men appeared. Then suddenly the shout: Anh Duc! (my name in the Militia). Good heavens! Someone raised his arm, and a small boat broke away from the convoy and came alongside me. Joy! I was surrounded by my friends in the Workers’ Militia, who were moving west with the Third Division. I quickly told them what had happened to me, and that other La Lutte friends were among the prisoners.
We’ll come back for you, they promised, as they pulled away.
The next day my companion and I were released, following the energetic pressure applied to Nguyen Van Trong by the Third Division commanders. It was simply a matter of the relative strength of forces.
My Militia friends informed me of the deaths of Le Ngoc, Le Ky and the young Nguyen Van Huong. They had split off to go and reconstitute a base in Saigon. On the way to the city they had been rounded up and imprisoned by a French patrol, and when the latter released them, the local Vietminh had executed all three as Viet gian (traitors to the Fatherland).
Then we found out that our jailers had transferred all our former fellow-prisoners from the church onto a large junk that they had turned into a floating jail. The Third Division boarded the boat and liberated the imprisoned human cargo. As a result, all the Vietminh’s prisoners, including the La Lutte supporters, joined the Third Division.
We were still in the Plain of Reeds, on the front between My Tho and Sadec, where Leclerc’s armored columns were breaking through.
Exhausted by tuberculosis, I felt that I was a dead weight on the Militia. Seeing my debilitated state, a comrade, Nghi, suggested that I return to Saigon with him. We traveled the same road back across the Plain of Reeds. Crossing the vast marshes on foot and in a sampan, we managed to avoid the Vietminh checkpoints and to conceal ourselves at the approach of French patrols. All along the route the frames of burned huts and the ravaged skeletons of fruit trees gave silent witness to the distress of these deserted villages. Here and there were fresh mounds of earth marking graves, some marked with the names of the slaughtered persons. In one hamlet we saw the remains of a flimsy barricade made of sandbags and bundles of latex leaves. We were received with touching sympathy by the few surviving villagers, who told us about the French patrol that had fired on them indiscriminately from their speeding truck. The soldiers of the colonial reconquest were everywhere.
We traveled mostly by night, sustaining ourselves by chewing sugar cane. On the other side of the river we ran into a group of armed men who detained us. In the morning a big strapping fellow appeared — someone not entirely unknown to me. Where are you coming from? he asked me. It was Minh, known as The Swimmer, a veteran militant of Ta Thu Thau’s group.* His band of independent guerrillas controlled this meandering stream of water. Minh told me that in October 1945, during the French offensive at Thu Dau Mot, the Vietminh had massacred thirty prisoners in the Ben Suc jungle, including members of the La Lutte group. Before he was executed, Tran Van Thach had entrusted his watch, his glasses and a notebook to a young Stalinist guard, who happened to be one of his former students, to be transmitted to his brother. Among those shot were Nguyen Van So and Phan Van Chanh, with whom the Stalinists had collaborated in producing La Lutte from 1934 to 1937, as well as Nguyen Van Tien, who had recently come back from a hard labor sentence at Poulo Condore; also Ngon, a worker from the Arsenal; and a woman doctor, Nguyen Ngoc Suong, who had apparently cautioned the executioner to take careful aim at her heart. Devastated by this news, we continued on our way.
At last, one evening at twilight we arrived at the house of a cousin of Nghi’s. Nghi took cover elsewhere and arranged for me to stay with this cousin, who took me out every day in his fishing boat. It was the ideal place to hide. I lay flat in the boat under the roofing while my host cast his net. The boat drifted with the tide, keeping near the steep banks. This allowed us to disappear, when necessary, into the little creeks that ran into the river. At times, when we heard the sound of detonations, we went ashore to hide behind the bamboo hedges. My companion constantly plied me with cigarettes to help me tolerate the foul odor of the innumerable corpses floating on the current and edging along the riverbanks — some with no faces, some tied up. Who were they? Where had they come from? Who had killed them?
One day, about noon, Nghi showed up with Nguyen Van Linh! What a delightful sight! He brought news from Saigon . . . and cigarettes. All three of us set off for the city, which was still at war. We passed through a village just after the French had been there. They had lined up all the villagers in squatting positions on the edge of a canal, then machine-gunned them all.
After two days, we reached Saigon.
*See Translators Notes.
Chapter 7 from Ngo Van’s book In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary (AK Press, 2010).
In the Crossfire is a translation of Ngo Van’s Au pays de la Cloche fêlée (Paris: L’Insomniaque, 2000) and of excerpts from Ngo Van’s Au pays d’Héloïse (L’Insomniaque, 2005). It has been edited by Ken Knabb and Hélène Fleury and translated by Hélène Fleury, Hilary Horrocks, Ken Knabb and Naomi Sager.